CALGARY – The federal system for reviewing the environmental impacts of large-scale mining operations in Alberta’s tar sands has broken down and must be repaired before any further projects are considered for approval, say the four environmental groups that brought successful court challenges of federal approvals of the Kearl tar sands project.

Imperial Oil’s Kearl project is a proposed open-pit tar sands mining operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The project would cover 200 square kilometres of Alberta’s northern Boreal Forest. Despite the massive scale of the project, a joint federal-provincial Review Panel had determined that the mine would not cause a significant environmental impact.  On behalf of four environmental groups, Ecojustice lawyers successfully challenged the Panel’s assessment. In March, the Federal Court rejected the assessment because the Panel had not explained its conclusion about the mine’s contribution to global warming.

“The Kearl Panel should be embarrassed by their totally inadequate response to the Federal Court’s decision in March.” said Stephen Hazell of the Sierra Club.  “The Court wanted a rational explanation showing how releasing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to putting 800,000 cars on the road could possibly be environmentally insignificant – the Panel had no good answers.”

After the Federal Court confirmed in May that a key Fisheries Act permit for the Project was invalid, the federal government quietly expedited the re-approval of the permit. The environmental groups have decided, however, that they will not return to Court to challenge this latest approval for the Kearl project.

“For now, we feel that we’ve done what we could through the courts,” said Ecojustice lawyer Sean Nixon.  “The federal government has shown that it will spare no effort to rubber-stamp tar sands development, by pretending that some of the largest industrial projects in human history have no environmental impacts.  The obscene rush to develop the tar sands without controlling their impacts is degrading our environment and harming our international reputation.”

The environmental groups say the federal government has the primary responsibility to make sure Canada meets its international commitments to tackle climate change, and to make sure that the environmental impacts of development in Alberta don’t negatively affect other provinces and territories.  Current tar sands development is degrading inter-provincial waterways like the Athabasca River, is polluting the air and dumping acid rain in Saskatchewan, and is threatening Canada’s at-risk species, like the woodland caribou.

The environmental groups say they will be watching carefully to see whether the federal and provincial governments fulfill their legal responsibilities to manage the Kearl project’s environmental impacts in the long-term.  They’ll also be looking very carefully at future environmental reviews of oil sands projects to ensure that the government complies with its own environmental laws.

“Upcoming joint panel reviews, like the review this fall of Total’s Joslyn North mining project, must not repeat the Kearl charade,” said Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute. “Canadians deserve a system that seriously considers the environmental impacts of oil sands mega-projects, including greenhouse gas pollution and the cumulative impacts from multiple projects to air quality, fresh water resources and the boreal forest.  Oil sands companies must be held to a standard based upon meaningful, practical measures to mitigate those impacts, and if they can’t meet this standard then the government must turn down the proposed project.”